Paving Paradise

The city where I live is a popular tourist destination, and this whole area is a favorite winter residence for “snowbirds,” mostly from the Midwest. Although the winter visitors tend to fill up the condos in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach (the two cities that share “Pleasure Island”), there is still a need for lodging for guests here as well. Fairhope used to have a hotel (the Colonial Inn) fairly close to town, and one of the large houses in town used to be a boarding house, but the Colonial Inn burned down, and the boarding house is now a private residence. Another home used to be a bed-and-breakfast inn, and another still is. An old-fashioned strip motel hangs on at the southern edge of town, and one of the town’s most distinctive landmarks has also been converted into a guest house.

But the new, modern hotels (Key West Inn, Holiday Inn Express) are farther from town, along Highway 98, which bypasses downtown, and many people who visit here want to stay downtown. So one of our enterprising developers is building a Hampton Inn downtown. This has been a somewhat controversial venture (it’s three stories tall in a downtown area that until recently was composed almost entirely of one- and two-story buildings). And it will require parking, which is always at a premium downtown. So the builder offered to build, in conjunction with the hotel, a parking garage that would not only provide parking spaces reserved for hotel guests but also add more public parking spaces than were currently provided by the surface lot it would replace. This seemed like a win-win proposition, and the city fathers approved.

The hotel building is going up nicely now and, with windows and their concomitant AC units installed, is looking quite like a hotel. And the first concrete pillars of the parking garage have now been erected as well. But before all this could appear above ground, considerable site preparation was required (including excavation that threatened a noble ancient tree, causing further controversy). Many cubic yards of soil had to be removed from the site and disposed of. In another win-win agreement, the builder made an arrangement with the county school system to dump the earth into a gully behind the K–1 Center, thereby preventing further erosion and providing more land area.

Each day as I walk through “the desert,” as my husband and I call this stretch of street behind the school (because there is virtually never any usable shade there on really hot days), I observe this reclamation project. For weeks I watched dump trucks bringing loads of dirt and dumping them into the seemingly insatiable maw of the gully. Then I watched bulldozers spreading the dirt and leveling the surface. Finally I saw that a carpet of straw had been spread over the new land. The straw, which contains (or covers) grass seed, is held together with biodegradable netting. The straw prevents the soil and seed from washing away, the netting prevents the straw from washing away, and presently there is tall grass, which is what I now see when I pass.

It seems quite marvelous, but I wonder how long the grass will survive. As I mentioned, parking is at a premium near downtown, and this new land area is bordered on two sides by existing parking, recently resurfaced. Most of the existing parking spaces are currently unused most of the time: they serve the school (which will be partially closing within a year or so when the first grade moves to a new elementary school, leaving only the kindergarten) and the classrooms of a portion of the Fairhope campus of the University of South Alabama (which has facilities scattered all over town). The only time all the parking spaces in town are sure to be filled—with campers and motor homes as well as cars and trucks—is during Arts & Crafts weekend, which brings artists and tourists from around the country to our town for three days.

The town is trying to be environmentally responsible. A number of experiments with pervious concrete and permeable and porous pavers have been successful, and one can only hope that, if this reclaimed land is ultimately paved, some such method will be used.

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